Back in early February, as the first outbreak of COVID-19 swept across the globe and I began encountering nightly news reports detailing the escalating numbers of deaths, I somewhat glibly tweeted that it was time to dig out my box set of 1970s BBC drama Survivors (1975-7) as preparation for the ensuing events. In hindsight, I’m not proud of that comment; I’m fully aware that making such an off-the-cuff remark comes from an immense position of privilege linked to my status as a middle-class white male who is socio-economically, gerontologically and (until recently) professionally distant from the spaces where exposure to the virus increases significantly. I have made good on my promise on re-watching Survivors however, and in this blog post I’m going to reflect on why a cult TV fan such as myself may turn to such a pandemic-themed fictional drama during circumstances such as these. By doing so, I hope to offer some tentative reflections on how such viewing practices complicate long-standing assumptions regarding television’s relationship with the horror genre.
It’s not just Survivors that I have rewatched, I should add. Other points of reference have included British ‘cult’ television programmes such as Doomwatch (1970-2) and, thanks to being invited to De Paul University in Chicago’s weekly fan gatherings, Doctor Who (1963-89, 1996, 2005- ) stories where infections, diseases and medical institutions drive the narrative. Yet, Survivors has endured over the last seven months and remains, for me, the most prescient programme due to the series’ more ‘realist’ aesthetic strategies and how its serialised plot develops across its first season. You could say that Survivors has become my ‘go to’ text for coping and surviving mentally with the unfolding situation.
For readers who are unfamiliar with the series, Survivors ran between 1975 and 1977 as a primetime drama on BBC One in the UK. Its premise arises from a male scientist who works in a laboratory in China becoming infected with a disease that he unintentionally transports around the world via air travel. The mysterious virus inevitably reaches the UK where the series is set and it is revealed early on that it has wiped out 90% of the global population; in the UK, there are estimated to be approx. 10,000 of the titular survivors. What unfolds in the first series is a taught, almost sociological, storyline centred around how a group of strangers ‘starts again’, covering everything from systems of government and the right to rule through to how and whether concepts of law, order and capital punishment should be reinstated.
These plots unfold against a set of harrowingly barren aesthetic strategies which underline the loneliness and isolation experienced by lead protagonists Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour), Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch; not the lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen) and Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming). These themes are communicated through repeated shots of lead characters framed against the wilderness of England’s green and now frequently unpleasant land, accompanied by nothing but the howling wind (as a side note, whoever decided that the addition of a continual and booming orchestral score to the 2000s remake needed their head checking).
Survivors is frequently discussed in both academic work (see Jonathan Bignell’s blog for CSTonline) and by its fans in relation to the sociological context of Britain in the 1970s, its intersections with the self-sufficiency movement, and in tandem with sitcom The Good Life (1975-8; see Cross and Priestner 2005, Sawyer 2006). However, I’ve continually read Survivors and discussed it with friends and colleagues as a horror text. Granted, it does not feature the type of repulsive monsters that academic discussions of the horror genre have positioned as integral to aesthetic experience of ‘art-horror’ (Carroll 1990); unlike Doctor Who, there are no giant prawns or foam-spewing alien seed pods from which our points of identification are required to recoil.
Instead, Survivors’ horror effect plays much more heavily on the ‘return of the repressed’ theme that Robin Wood (1986) theorized in relation to American horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, rather than the ‘monster’ being the return of marginalised groups such as the working class or children, the repression that becomes unleashed in Survivors is the pent-up anger and selfishness of the middle-classes. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than at the end of Survivors’ second episode, ‘Genesis’ (1975), where Anne Tranter (Myra Frances), upon learning that Vic Thatcher (Terry Scully), the white male who she has been living with in a well-stocked portacabin in a quarry, has broken his legs in an accident involving an overturned tractor, informs Greg (who has been to fetch medical supplies) that Vic has died of his injuries. As Greg, Jenny and Anne drive away, the scene cuts to the door of the portacabin where Vic is seen crawling to the door and screaming for help as the camera slowly pulls back to emphasise his abandonment. The callousness of Anne’s actions is as horrifying as the effects of the virus itself and draws attention to how middle-class consumer culture has ‘dehumanized’ people to the point of viewing others as commodities that can be abandoned when their usefulness has been used up. What the white middle-class has repressed, and what a situation like a pandemic unleashes, is the cruelty and contempt towards our fellow man which bubbles just beneath the surface of polite 1970s society in Survivors.
With my summary in mind, you might rightly be thinking ‘why on earth would you turn to a series like Survivors during a pandemic?’ Be assured that I’ve asked myself that question! It would seem, however, that I am not alone in turning to pandemic-themed texts – albeit not Survivors – as a strategy for negotiating the experience of living through COVID. Writing for The Guardian, Charles Bramesco (2020 para. 2) noted that “screening rentals and downloads of Stephen Soderbergh’s disaster thriller Contagion have soared, as have considerations of its chillingly realistic simulation of a pandemic.” Bramesco (2020: para. 3) accounts for this trend as “a sanctioned version of exposure therapy, in which an inconceivable menace can be experienced and survived.” Such an account bears traces of psychologizing ‘uses and gratifications’ understandings of media consumption where media users choose media content to fill their individually-determined ‘needs’.
An alternative, but still psychologically-informed account, was offered by Mathias Clasen who stated that “movies can help people prepare for scary situations in the same way that our imagination allows us to rehearse for dates and confrontations.” (in Sample 2020: para. 15) Instead of fulfilling the needs of a particular and individualized psychological condition, then, watching a programme like Survivors within the context of a pandemic works as informal learning where the viewer is directly educated in coping techniques. In terms of understanding its audience and their media consumption habits, though, uses and gratifications-based explanations become replaced with a more ‘media effects’ perspective.
What the accounts of consuming pandemic-themed fiction circulating in popular journalism overlook are an understanding of television’s social and cultural characteristics. Turning to address these, I would instead argue that the appeal of a fictional programme like Survivors within the historical moment of a pandemic relates to television’s ability to generate ontological security and, oddly, this occurring in relation to ‘horror’ discourses.
Introduced by Anthony Giddens (1991), ontological security is a sociological concept that originates from how individuals experience postmodern society. In stark contrast to past forms of social organization, (post)modern individuals must put their faith in abstract systems such as digital technologies and global information flows as more traditional markers of interpersonal trust, such as familial and neighbourly ties, have been eroded in a globally-connected world. To manage the anxiety experienced by this need to place trust in systems over which we have little influence or comprehension, the individual constructs, communicates and regularly revises a ‘self narrative’ that allows for a coherent sense of self to be maintained. Ontological security arises out of having what you know about yourself and your social world regularly (re)confirmed and this forms the basis for building trust in a fragmented and dispersed social environment.
Both television in its multiple forms and, more recently, other forms of screen-accessible media such as streaming services have regularly been identified as potential resources for generating and sustaining ontological security (Silverstone 1994; Lee 2018). That is, the medium’s daily, weekly, and yearly availability and rhythms of programming schedules have been seen to provide individuals with cohesion and coherence in the face of change. Rebecca Williams (2015) has furthered the application of Giddens’s ideas to the ‘post-object’ experience of cancelled or ‘past’ TV shows via DVD releases, arguing that fans of such shows can continually (re-)negotiate their attachment to a series – and hence their ontological security – by re-watching either favourite clips, episodes, seasons or the show’s entire run.
Williams’s point concerning the continued availability of a favourite series for consumption in the form of a DVD box set overlaps with how I’ve been discussing Survivors: the show has sat amidst my physical home media library, waiting for the right moment to be re-inserted into the Blu-ray player. Returning to Survivors during a pandemic thus allows me to ease pandemic-induced anxiety by nostalgically re-experiencing and re-iterating my self-identity through long-standing media attachments.
What’s unusual about the experience that I’m writing about – and hopefully others re-watching pandemic-themed media in their domestic environments will agree – is that ontological security becomes associated with the intersection between television’s medium characteristics and horror codings. As I have blogged about before, building upon the work of colleagues such as Matt Hills (2005) and Lorna Jowett and Stacey Abbott (2013), horror and television have, until very recently, been uneasy bedfellows. Horror’s aesthetic experience has seen to be at odds with television’s status as a domestically-located medium and so its intrusions into the domestic sphere has been associated with violating the experience of watching television rather than offering support for constructions of ontological security.
Overall, what I’m arguing is that in certain – albeit atypical – historical circumstances such as the current pandemic, tele-based experiences of horror conventions or texts can work as sources of stability and reassurance. A beloved-yet-dark text like Survivors can, through the familiarity of its plotlines, its frank presentation of experiencing a viral outbreak and, at a technological level, continual availability for re-visiting on DVD or Blu-ray, offer a point of refuge for (fan) audiences living through a situation such as COVID-19. Rather than thinking about television’s relationship with the horror genre as uneasy, it may well be the case that for certain identity groups living through particular historical moments, knowing that particular horror tropes can be re-encountered offers a form of support that helps that individual to survive.
Ross Garner is lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies in the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University. He is currently researching how audiences consume popular constructions of the Mesozoic period across a variety of contexts ranging including television, film, museums and material culture.
Bignell, Jonathan. (2020) ‘Survivors: Rebuilding Society in the Seventies’. CSTonline, 7/2/20. https://cstonline.net/survivors-rebuilding-society-in-the-seventies-by-jonathan-bignell/
Bramesco, Charles. (2020) ‘Exposure Therapy: Why We’re Obssessed with Watching Virus Movies’. The Guardian, Film, 16/03/20. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/mar/16/coronavirus-movies-why-are-we-obsessed-contagion-films. [Accessed 27/10/20]
Carroll, Noel. (1990) The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. London: Routledge.
Cross, Rich and Andy Priestner. (2005) The End of the World?: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Survivors. Canterbury: Telos Publishing.
Hills, Matt. (2005) The Pleasures of Horror. London: Continuum.
Giddens, Anthony. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Jowett, Lorna and Stacey Abbott. (2013) TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen. London: I.B. Tauris.
Lee, Claire S. (2018) ‘Searching for Ontological Security via Homeland Media Use: The Case of Korean Temporary Visa-Status Migrants in the United States’. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 42 (4): 404-422.
Sample, Ian. (2020) ‘I Feel Fine: Fans of World-Ending Films ‘Coping Better with Pandemic’’. The Guardian, Science, 01/07/20. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jul/01/end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-fans-of-apocalyptic-films. [Accessed 27/10/20]
Sawyer, Andy. (2006) ‘Everyday Life in the Post-Catastrophe Future: Terry Nation’s Survivors’, in John R. Cook and Peter Wright (eds.) British Science Fiction Television: A Hitchhiker’s Guide. London: I.B. Tauris. pp. 131-153.
Silverstone, Roger. (1994) Television and Everyday Life. London: Routledge.
Williams, Rebecca. (2015) Post-Object Fandom: Television, Identity and Self-Narrative. London: Bloomsbury.
Wood, Robin. (1986) Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia University Press.